Look! A Tanuki


A standoff with a wild Tanuki back in May 2006 at Sakata, Niigata. 

Lucky neither of us had a six-gun.

Tanukis are referred to in English as “Raccoon Dogs”. When I first researched about them ten years ago I found they were not related to either raccoons or to canines. It seems now though, that most reference sites on the net regard them as having a distant relationship to canines. Anyway they are not related to raccoons and are only distantly related to dogs so I’m happy to call them by their local name, “Tanuki”. To me, calling it a “raccoon dog” is a bit like calling a Koala, a “Koala Bear”, a name appointed by folks in the northern hemisphere.

The problem is that Tanukis are also found in Korea and China and hence are known by different names in different places as their range expands across language borders.

There is less confusion when we can just use their native names. Last year I’d just arrived at Fukushimagata to do some birdwatching and was told in English with great excitement that some people had just seen a badger. (There is also a species of Japanese Badger). I was excited too as I’d never seen a badger but I soon realised that the people speaking Japanese around me were talking about, “Tanuki.”

I’m still happy to see a Tanuki if given the chance. I’ve only had this one good encounter apart from a handful of passing glimpses along roadsides at night. Mostly I see them as road kill even in urban areas.

A "Tanukis cross here" road sign along the sea-side road, Niigata City.

Tanukis do suffer from traffic. I remember watching a documentary on Japanese TV years ago that discussed the problem of highways and roads cutting through their habitats and blocking them from territories and natural corridors. One problem discussed was that in many places, the gutters in Japan are too high for Tanukis to climb and escape traffic so they thought about making artificial corridor tunnels under the roads. I seem to remember similar discussions about making such corridors for Koalas between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

When I first arrived in Japan I was told by Japanese friends that I should never trust a Tanuki; that it’ll try to trick me and even transform itself into another being (As old Japanese legends suggest). Maybe I was worried the one I met might have changed into a bear, a dragon, or a samurai, or even something with deep, hypnotic eyes and cherry-like lips. Tanukis are often despised by vegetable farmers for digging up vegetables. Statues of Tanukis are also stood-out in front of pubs and restaurants as a sign that weary travellers are welcome and can be assured of a nice rest and a good feed.

The Tanuki statue in front of the Japanese restaurant at Fukushimagata.  (October 2010)